On July 15th, 2018, France completed their second World Cup triumph in much the same way as their first. The convincing victory and relative ease with which they played out the last quarter of the match, was fitting for a side who were deserving winners of the 21st World Cup.
The fact that their average age of the squad was 26 years and 10 days is extremely ominous for other nations in the coming years. The thing I will always remember about this group is their calm approach and balance, in terms of their blend between attack and defence. France also had a beautiful balance between their right and their left flanks, expertly controlled by Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, both 22 years of age and newcomers to this level of International football. This was a united squad completely focused on one thing; winning. They have their manager Didier Deschamps to thank for that mentality. He was the French captain when they lifted the World Cup on a balmy night in Paris in 1998. He is now a coach in esteemed company with Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, as the only 3 coaches in history to lift the World Cup as both a player and manager. Deschamps, unenviably tagged as the luckiest man in all of France, was considered lucky to captain a home nation realizing their dreams 20 years before. A piano carrier to the piano players of Zidane, Henry and Blanc. He is often accused of being tactically inept as a coach. He experienced the disappointment and embarrassment of losing a European Championship final in Paris, just over 2 years before. What we all forgot is that winning is special. It takes something unique to lead a team to glory. It’s more than just about talent and skill. It’s about heart and strength, making decisions that may not always seem logical, and believing at all times that you are the one who is destined for glory. It’s about mental fortitude. I will forever respect Deschamps for reminding me of that lesson as I, amongst others, didn’t believe he could lead them to success. He was also blessed with a group of players abundant in talent, skill, belief and guts. As I look back on this generation, I will never underestimate the role “the water carrier” Deschamps played in this triumph.
What a World Cup Russia 2018 was! This tournament had absolutely everything. The drama and story lines were constant throughout. The controversy started before a ball was kicked as the Spanish federation took the unprecedented steps of sacking their coach Julen Lopetegui. The news came out that Lopetegui would be joining Spanish giants, Real Madrid after the competition. Spain were shocked and angry with the news. They felt betrayed and reacted emotionally relieving Lopetegui of his duties and hastily appointing their Technical Director, Fernando Hierro as the new head coach. We will never know how good Spain would have played at Russia 2018 with Lopetegui, however we do know that under Hierro, we saw a team who lacked thrust and tactical acumen as they increasingly looked more and more lost and devoid of ideas as this tournament went on.
This was a tournament of the collective. All the talk at the beginning was of Ronaldo and Messi and their last chance to lift the coveted trophy and definitively fortify themselves at the pinnacle of the World football summit for the rest of eternity. The reality was we witnessed two guys who almost looked normal. Well almost, in the sense, like any other world class football player. In and out of matches. Moments of genius and minutes of mediocrity. They were both victims for once that their respective football team was not that good. No balance, no cohesion, dare I say it, no belief. Both teams crashed out as soon as the competition entered the business end of the knockout stages. It was a sad sight to behold as we will probably never see them at the World’s greatest sporting event ever again.
This tournament was wonderful because it was about team football. It was about national identity. Playing with personality and doing what it takes to progress with the swagger or pragmatism of your blood. It was about rewriting history while still staying true to your ancestors. There was Sweden. They were tough and difficult to play against. They were set up with 11 men behind the ball. In Toivonen and Berg, they had 2 strikers who arguably defended as well as their 2 central defenders. The opposition knew what was coming, it was just very hard to stop.
There was Mexico. They lit up the tournament with their wonderful counter attack and gave us the first indication that all was not well with Germany. They had an astute coach and an exciting young winger in Hirving Lozano, destined for greater things in the not too distant future. There was also Japan and Denmark and Peru and Senegal. All with an identity and game plans exciting us in different ways, some luckier than others. Senegal became the first team to leave the group stage for accumulating more cautions than the Japanese after every other tie breaker was identical.
This was a tournament that reaffirmed the national pride that burns inside all of us. It was a wonderful reinvention of international football and it’s relevancy. While we all love our clubs, nothing compares to watching your country compete on the biggest stage. It’s already got me thinking to Qatar in 2020 and how my birth country, Scotland and my adopted country of Canada, can re-establish or reinvent both of their philosophies of the beautifully game, so as not to miss out in 4 years.
This was a tournament of last minute goals. This was a tournament of set plays and their importance in a 21st century game obsessed with beautiful football and possession. Every facet of this game is important. At this level you can’t switch off for 1 second. You can’t look ahead or become complacent. This was also a tournament of shocks. Almost a reshuffling of the hierarchy. We saw Germany crash out at the group stage. Spain exited in the last 16. Brazil at the quarter final stage. If you weren’t together, or you if you played pass after pass without disrupting your opponent’s defence, or if you had a bad half of football, this World Cup found you out. It was ruthless and punishing. Many great nations were sent home to regroup and ponder their mistakes and complacency.
This was also a tournament of goals! We had 171 in total. All memorable for different reasons. Only 1 match was a stalemate. Every fan, whether casual or ardent, sat back in awe at the quality of football on show. This was a World Cup for the ages. The best of my generation and indeed any other in all probability. A triumphant return for the international game and confirmation that there is nothing in sport that quite compares to a World Cup. In total, 32 teams played 64 matches with an average of 2.7 goals per game. Thank you, Russia, for helping to create such a spectacle. It was my immense pleasure to broadcast the World Cup of 2018 to the country of Canada for TSN. I can’t wait for the next one and the stories it will write.